AECT Handbook of Research

Table of Contents

16. Visual Literacy

16.1 Introduction
16.2 Theoretical Foundations of Visual Literacy
16.3 Establishing a Visual Literacy Research Agenda
16.4 Visual Vocabulary
16.5 Visualization
16.6 Visual Learning/Visual Teaching
16.7 Visual Thinking
16.8 Visual Literacy and Verbal Literacy
16.9 The Visual-Verbal Relationship
16.10 Visible Language:Text as Visuals
16.11 Eletronic Visuals
16.12 Conclusions
Search this Handbook for:



The concept of visual literacy was crystallized by John Debes (1968, 1969, 1970), but as Jonassen and Fork noted, "Visual literacy is eclectic in origin" (1975, p. 7). Debes; (1970) may or may not have coined the term visual literacy, but indeed be did provide its longest (and perhaps longest lasting) definition:

Visual literacy refers to a group of vision competencies a human being can develop by seeing at the same time he has and integrates other sensory experiences. The development of these competencies is fundamental to normal human learning. When developed, they enable a visually literate person to discriminate and interpret the visible actions, objects, and/or symbols, natural or man made, that he encounters in his environment. Through the creative use of these competencies, he is able to communicate with others. Through the appreciative use of these competencies, he is able to comprehend and enjoy the masterworks of visual communication (p. 14).

In that early visual literacy work, "The Loom of Visual Literacy," Debes flirted with the idea of a visual language, and referred to the even earlier work of Chomsky (1957) on syntactic structures and the work of Paul Wendt (1962) who had written about the language of pictures. Colin Turbayne, an early visual literacy theorist (1962, 1969, 1970a, 1970b), explored the syntax of visual language (1970b) and concluded that, "Unhappily the code of visual language is chaotic" (p. 24). He was concerned that "Words are often ambiguous" (1970a, p. 115) and that for an object or image to have language utility, it must ". . . always suggest things in the same uniform way..." (p. 115). Turbayne, more than any other, laid the groundwork for an analogy of a visual language to verbal language. He wrote, "Just as a large part of learning to understand words consists in learning how to respond to them, so is it the case in learning how to see" (1970, p. 125). The notion that human beings can be taught (thus learn) "how to see" has been central to visual literacists ever since,

16.2.1 Dual Coding

In 1971, Paivio published his book, Imagery and Verbal Processes. In that work he introduced in print what has come to be known as the Dual Coding Theory (DCT) of memory and cognition (see 26.3, 29.2.3). Later, Paivio (1991) said that DCT evolved from his specific experiments on the role of imagery in associative learning (e.g., Paivio, 1963, 1965). Paivio isn't easy reading, and he is prone to take many pages to explain his theory, but nowhere does he state it simply. The closest that he comes is within a summary table (Paivio, 1991) where parsimony is essential:

Cognition is served by two modality-specific systems that are experientially derived and differentially specialized for representing and processing information concerning nonverbal objects, events, and language (p. 258).

Not all theorists agree with the basic tenets of dual-coding theory. Miller and Burton (1994) characterize those who argue that imaging is encoded as neutral abstract propositions (as opposed to spatial and modality-specific encoding) as the "anti-image group~' (e.g., Pylyshyn, 1981). Although there has been no direct conflict between cue summation theory (see 29.4) and dual coding theory, neither has there been any concerted attempt to reconcile the two theories into a more encompassing theorization.

Although dual-coding research is primarily within the province of the field of psychology, the implications for visual literacy are obvious. If, in fact, we do encode both visually and verbally, and if, in fact, the conceptual-peg hypothesis is true [an oversimplification of the hypothesis that verbal concepts are hung on nonverbal pegs in memory, that imagery is the effective variable in recall of concrete verbal information], then the visualization, visual thinking, and visual-verbal connections aspects of visual literacy are theoretically supported.

16.2.2 Theoretical Foundations

Hortin has done the most intensive study of the theoretical foundations of visual literacy. His dissertation (Hortin, 1980a) was subtitled An Investigation of the Research, Practices, and Theories [of visual literacy]. In that document and subsequent writings (Hortin 1980b, 1994; Braden & Hortin, 1982), he has agreed with Jonassen and Fork (1975), emphasizing the eclectic nature of the origins of the field of visual literacy and of the range of interests that find a common bond under that rubric. Like the pseudopod metaphor advanced by Debes (1970) as a description of the parameters of visual literacy,* Hortin has portrayed visual literacy as a confluence of thought-incorporating linguistics, art, psychology, philosophy, and more.

Incidentally, the first researcher to characterize visual literacy as "a confluence of theories" was Johnson (1977). In his doctoral dissertation he wrote:

I was disappointed to discover that visual literacy is really nothing more than a "confluence of theories," brought together to form a vague, unorganized concept that tries to explain the notion of "visual sequencing" (p. 141).

Visual sequencing is only one narrow aspect of visual literacy as it is viewed today. The point of view of the researcher is critical, of course. Hortin was fascinated by the metaphor of parallel languages, and concentrated much of his focus on the contributions of linguist Noam Chomsky (1957, 1964, 1968, 1975). However, Hortin's primary research interest was with "visual thinking," and therefore his interpretation of what constituted a confluence of theories was much broader than that of Johnson whose field was the English language.

While Johnson (1977) was delving into the nature of visual literacy as an approach to English instruction, Hocking (1978) was exploring the wider issue of the parameters of visual literacy. His study at the University of Colorado sought to determine visual literacy goals. The paper by Braden and Hortin (1982) also explored the boundaries of the field. Braden and Hortin also offered a shorter definition than that of Debes's. They refined Hortin's own earlier definition (Hortin, 1980a) and came up with this definition:

Visual literacy is the ability to understand and use images, including the ability to think, learn, and express oneself in terms of images (p. 169).

Seels (1994), in her chapter on the "visual literacy definition problem," uses the Braden-Hortin definition in her glossary, giving current support to defining the field in broader terms. Many other attempts have been made to examine the nature of visual literacy and to define the concept. Notable among them are the work of Case-Gant (1973), Lamberski (1976), Fork and Newhouse (1978), Sucy (1985), Sinatra (1988), Whiteside and Whiteside (1988), and the participants at the Twenty-second Annual Lake Okoboji Educational Media Leadership Conference (Cureton & Cochran, 1976).

Baca (1990) did the most recent and most comprehensive study to date, a delphi study in which visual literacy professionals collectively helped identify what is and what is not a part of visual literacy. After years of quibbling about the nature of visual literacy, Baca found that "Mere is a great deal of agreement regarding the basic tenets of visual literacy among the scholars who study it" (p. 74). Baca listed 186 accepted constructs of visual literacy. Those regarding definition included: "Visual literacy refers to the use of visuals for the purposes of communication, thinking, learning, constructing meaning, creative expression, [and] aesthetic enjoyment" (p. 65). Earlier, Baca and Braden (1990) had pointed out regarding the Braden-Hortin definition that "even that definition fails to directly address design, creativity, and aesthetics as they apply to visualization." The delphi study acknowledged the additions.

The primary contribution of the Baca study was that it affirmed the broad scope of interests that are subsumed under the visual literacy umbrella. The study also provided an organizational scheme for categorizing the constructs of the field, but it did not identify all of the legs of Debes's pseudopod. That is one objective of this chapter: to organize the research of the field into the subfields of visual literacy. Such a framework will help to clarify the focus of future visual literacy research and will aid future fledgling researchers to select an area for study.

A host of theories and diverging areas of specialization emerged in the dozen years immediately after the visual literacy movement was set in motion. Braden and Hortin 0 982, p. 164) compiled a short list:

Some of the theories have dealt with: visual languaging (e.g., Ausburn & Ausburn, 1978; Debes, 1972, 1974: Turbayne, 1970b); visual thinking (e.g., Arnheim, 1969; Haber, 1970; Wileman, 1980); visual learning (e.g., Dwyer, 1978;Jonassen & Fork, 1978; Randhawa, Back & Meyers, 1977); hemispheric lateralization of the brain (e.g., Bogen, 1979;Ragan, 1977; Sperry, 1973); mental imagery (e.g., Fleming,1977; Kosslyn & Pomerantz, 1977; Pylyshyn, 1973); levels of abstraction (e.g., Clark & Clark, 1976; Clark, 1978); cultural interaction (Cochran, Younghouse, Sorflaten & Molek, 1980); and the interactive theories dealing with symbol systems and dual coding (e.g., Levie, 1978; Levie & Levie, 1975; Paivio, 1971, 1975, 1983; Salomon, 1972, 1979a).

The list was not meant to be A inclusive then, and certainly is incomplete another dozen years later. Clearly, there are many theories relevant to the area loosely called visual literacy. No one theory comes even close to encompassing all (or even one) of the others.

Updated August 3, 2001
Copyright © 2001
The Association for Educational Communications and Technology

1800 North Stonelake Drive, Suite 2
Bloomington, IN 47404

877.677.AECT (toll-free)

AECT Home Membership Information Conferences & Events AECT Publications Post and Search Job Listings